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Sasha’s Metanoia

Casey Hardison | Essay | Monday, September 29th, 2014
Sasha in the Burning Man Temple 2014

Sasha’s Memorial in the Burning Man Temple 2014          Photo by Bruce Damer

Recently, I awoke from a dream in which Sasha and I were sitting high up over a shoreline watching the sunset out west of us. It had been a large family gathering and Sasha, though old and frail, was in his usual ebullient mood.

The conversation had left psychedelics and chemistry long ago and we were talking of the psychological transformations that had been or were occurring for him as the sun set on his life. Do psychedelics prepare one for death? This was a question Terence had left me with shortly before he died in the spring of 2000. He had answered it in the affirmative: “And we psychedelic people, if we could secure that death has no sting, we would have done the greatest service to suffering intelligence that can be done.”

Sasha's Ashes at the Temple

Sasha’s Ashes at the Temple

The conversation I was having with Sasha in my dream had no sting for either of us. When I asked him if he still thinks of “next year I’ll do this or that …”, he looked at me and smiled peacefully: he had already forgot the question. He was here and now, in my dream … and then he was gone.

I awoke and shared my dream with Charlotte. It is very rare I talk about dreams at all. There’s too much to focus on in the waking state, too much to piece together here and now than to witter on about shards of broken pottery from a dream. But this dream had echoed something Greg Manning, of Team Shulgin, had said at Sasha’s memorial in Berkeley about the childlike innocence of Sasha’s early dementia. Greg had asked him to repeat something he had just said. Sasha replied: “Oops! Can’t remember.” Greg then asked him “How does that feel, Sasha, to not have all that stuff running around in your brain anymore?” Sasha said, “It’s very freeing. I am in shy amazement of the world in front of me that I haven’t touched yet.”

For me it was this innocence, this wondrous curiosity for discovery, this unabashed shameless pursuit of knowledge, that impressed me most about Sasha, particularly when he applied it to psychedelic chemistry. He put in a solid 50 years at the lab bench. What could motivate a man to such efforts?

Phenethtlamines I Have Known and Loved

Phenethtlamines I Have Known and Loved

Of his first psychedelic experience Sasha said in PiHKAL:

“The most compelling insight of that day was that this awesome recall had been brought about by a fraction of a gram of a white solid, but that in no way whatsoever could it be argued that these memories had been contained within the white solid. Everything I had recognized came from the depths of my memory and my psyche. I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.”

Upon my arrest, for catalyzing the availability of said chemicals, Sasha’s work, his words and his attitude gave me the courage to stand and fight — without excuse or shame or special pleadings — for what it means to be truly free. Indeed, this was the theme of Sasha’s memorial, that we should follow his lead, as Mariavittoria Mangini so eloquently put it: “if as I suspect is true, our psychedelic experiences have had lifelong implications, not only for our personal growth and our spiritual development, but also for our community involvement and our political activism, we should stand up and claim those experiences as influential in our lives”. We should own it.

Reflecting this, I opened my original defense arguments at trial quoting Sasha from the preface of TiHKAL:

“As in the past, the people who lead us are fueled by the archetype of power, that aspect of the human psyche which drives to structure, control, and formulate rules and systems. The power drive shapes our world, and without it, mankind would have perished long ago. When it is kept in balance with its several complementary energies, it gives us form; it builds civilizations. But when the precarious balance is shifted, and too much energy flows from this archetype, structure becomes constriction, control becomes dictatorship, teaching degenerates into admonition and threat, vision and intuition create dogma, and caution evolves into paranoia. Communication with the loving and nurturing energy within us is lost, and with it the ability to choose wisely, either for ourselves individually or for our species.

Priests and kings, emperors and presidents, and all those who find comfort and safety within the structures maintained by the powerful, tend to be disturbed and angered by the individuals who insist on striking off in new directions, ignoring the guidance of appointed leaders. To those in authority, there is the unconscious threat of chaos, the shattering of what is known, familiar, and safe. The response to this threat can take many forms, from killing the offender (witch-burning) to — at the very least — warning him to keep his knowledge and opinions to himself (as with Galileo), lest they provoke the self-protective anger of the established order and of those who maintain power through it.

This has been the history of human development on this earth, a balance maintained — usually with great difficulty and often with violence — between the urge to control and the need to change and grow. And this is the way it should have been able to continue, but the technological growth-spurt of the past fifty years has put mankind’s hands a body of knowledge that changes the equation. However, just as the nuclear and chemical warfare genies are out of the bottle, never to be put back again, so also will the psychedelic genie be forever amongst us.

Being human means being a soul that chooses — consciously or unconsciously — what it will do and what it will become. For my part, I prefer as much awareness as I can achieve in this lifetime, in order to make my choices wisely”.

Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved

Tryptamines I Have Known and Loved

Instead of claiming I didn’t do it, I stood there before the jury unashamed that I had found awareness, mindfulness, insight, and wisdom through the molecular genies that had escaped his flask and now mine. How could I be but otherwise when so gracious a gentle giant had shown me this way of being in relentless pursuit of knowledge and wisdom?

While I am not sure I can put it faithfully into words, what Alexander T Shulgin became for me — especially upon my arrest — is rooted in his intentionality and integrity. Sasha was a true hero in the Campbellian sense: even after the DEA raided his lab and took away his license to work with controlled substances he gleefully continued to share the knowledge gleaned from these molecules, actively promoting them as tools of insight-wisdom with anybody who would listen and potentially act. He was committed to a more loving and nurturing world and he was convinced that psychedelics were essential tools to accomplish that.

Over and over, like a mantra Sasha would say, “All I am is a tool maker, people use my tools to unlock doors and access rooms full of knowledge and wisdom and spirituality that already exist within them. I am just a tool maker”. Sasha, you were way more than that to me: you were a pioneer of Cognitive Liberty, a shameless promoter of the conscious exploration of what Huxley called the antipodes of the mind, and above all you were my model of a responsible steward of the genies that escaped my flask.

And it was to celebrate this greatness that over a thousand people flocked to Sasha’s memorial: most of us will be lucky to rustle up the requisite pallbearers to carry our coffin. As Earth and Fire Erowid related “in order to stay connected to the world, you need to keep and make friends of all ages … Gatherings at the Shulgin’s home always included an amazing array of students, teachers, professionals, researchers, and policy makers from young to old”. Getting to such an old age and yet still having such a spectrum of admiring celebrants is so rare. As Amanda Feilding said: “So brilliant of Sasha to not only live his life perfectly but also to have a perfect death surrounded by the people he loved … He’s a wonderful example to us all”.

The "Godfather" in his lab 2001

The “Godfather” in his lab 2001

For some, however, especially those whose children have died whilst consuming MDMA or other molecules his flask had first liberated, Dr Shulgin is not seen in such glowing light. As the United Kingdom’s Observer on Sunday reported after his death:

“It was not Shulgin’s intention to launch a global drug culture, nor to have that compound consumed with such abandon by millions of people. But it was his connection with this drug that made him a folk hero for the counterculture, known as the “godfather of ecstasy”, and a folk devil for many outside it.”

In my opinion, it is not fair to lay these unintended consequences at his feet rather than at the feet of those prosecuting a Frankensteinian ‘War on some people who use some Drugs’. For the problems associated with MDMA particularly are most often related to enforcement of that failed policy.

In the UK, in the early 90s, many “Ecstasy” users died from overheating when the police cracked down on the now unlawful outdoor rave scene: the ravers moved indoors, the dance floors blazed, the club-owners shut off the water taps whilst charging outrageous prices for tiny bottles of water, because they weren’t selling enough alcohol. Eventually, the UK Government mandated the provision of free tap water at such indoor venues, yet, ironically, in the heat of the night, the harm reduction message to drink plenty of water would lead to people effectively drowning in their own skin from “hyponatremia (literally “low salt”) also called “water intoxication”.

And then there are the adulterants, how could Sasha be held responsible for the acts of unscrupulous dealers out to make more money? A quick look at EcstasyData.org will inform one of how often the prohibitionist policy leads to adulterated or intentionally mislabeled pills and powders, a problem that would all but disappear with a regulated lawful supply of a drug essential to the coming of age of many. I know MDMA was essential to mine.